Monday 2 April marked the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina. The past few months have seen diplomatic tensions rise between the respective governments over the sovereignty of the islands in the South Atlantic, oil exploration rights, the dispatch of HMS Dauntless and even the posting of Prince William to the Falklands as a search-and-rescue pilot.
Yet one of the more inflammatory gestures was perceived to be the naming of the 2012 edition of the Argentine First Division as the Crucero General Belgrano Primera Division, invoking the famous name of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, sunk by British torpedoes during the war with the loss of 323 Argentine crew (almost half of Argentine losses during the conflict).
Whilst it is true that each season sees the Argentina Football Association (AFA) go though the formality of bestowing official names on competitions (recent examples include figures such as Rene Favaloro or Nestor Kirchner), this was widely viewed as a controversial move ahead of such a significant anniversary as the Falklands War. Argentine top-flight club Lanus also entered the debate by weaving an image of the disputed islands into their first-team strip.
The first action of the Falklands conflict in 1982 was the eviction of Argentine scrap metal workers from South Georgia by Royal Marines of HMS Endurance. The last act of these troops before leaving was in fact to win the annual football ‘Shield’ of the Islands, a tournament that often featured sides comprised of Argentine workers.
As the war took its course in 1982, it was impossible for football and politics not to collide, with a real possibility of the Home Nations (England, Scotland and Northern Ireland had all qualified) withdrawing from the World Cup in Spain. While Argentine fans unfurled banners stating, “England must leave the Malvinas” during a friendly against the Soviet Union, Tottenham Hotspur’s Argentine midfielder Ossie Ardiles (whose pilot cousin Lt. Jose Ardiles was killed during the campaign) was booed by many English fans and subsequently moved on loan to Paris St-Germain. Stockport County even abandoned their blue-and-white Argentina-inspired strip on the grounds that it “hardly seems appropriate, given the current circumstances”.
There was serious debate about the Home Nations’ participation in the World Cup, particularly following World Cup hosts Spain abstaining in the United Nations vote on the war. BBC Panorama ran a poll asking the public whether Britain’s football teams should compete, while questions were asked within Cabinet as to whether a potential second round meeting between Scotland and Argentina might be allowed to go ahead. Yet Prime Minister Thatcher was adamant that the nations compete, regardless of whether a meeting with Argentina in the latter stages would be politically difficult. In a speech to the Commons she stated her “belief that a good showing by the England team in Spain will prove an excellent fillip for the servicemen in the Falklands”.
Beyond the War
“It was as if we had beaten a country, not just a football team… Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas war, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.” – Diego Maradona
Between the end of the war in 1982 and the recent heightened tensions, there were other occasions when football and the Falklands have become entwined, the 1986 World Cup quarter-final being the most famous, as referenced by Maradona. As former international Roberto Perfumo declared, “In 1986, winning that game against England was enough. Winning the World Cup was secondary for us. Beating England was our real aim”.
In 1999 it was the turn of a little-known footballer named Martyn Clarke to stoke the tensions. Clarke became the first Falkland Islander to play football for an Argentine club, when he was brought over from Port Stanley to train with Boca Juniors. He was quickly the focus of mass media attention and spent his first evening eating pizza with Maradona, who famously let him use his mobile phone to call home. Clarke was the son of a Royal Marine veteran who served in the Falklands War, and his move provoked much consternation back home, while he was arguably used a political pawn by Boca (in particular Esteban Cichello, a friend of Maradona, who first spotted him), being sent on loan to two lower-league Argentine clubs.
A lack of direct competition on the football field in 2012 (Argentina have failed to qualify for the London Olympics) means the 30th anniversary may not be marked by a similar story. However, this is not to say the London Olympics might not throw up a story to re-ignite old fires. Whenever the Falklands is debated in popular discourse or tensions rise of the political front, football and sport is sure to follow.
By Matt Barrett
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona